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A communication made in the hope that someone will recognize our suffering.

Why do some people complain a great deal while others complain rarely, if ever? Is complaining learned behavior? Do complainers come from a long line of complainers? Is the need to complain determined by the troubles one experiences in life or is it more or less unrelated to how good or bad things are for the particular individual? Does complaining have a purpose that we need to understand better? What are the differences between complaining and simply sharing one’s troubles with someone?

The answers to some of these and similar questions might help us understand and, therefore, better tolerate this means of communicating that many of us find unpleasant or even objectionable.

For some people, complaining about things provides some measure of relief from the many life stresses they experience. Complaining can get attention, reassurance, and sympathy; it can feel validating, especially when the listener might agree with what troubles the complainer.

Other people who are heard to complain a great deal, may do so because they have many troubles. However, there are those who complain a lot yet, from our observations, it doesn't really seem as though much is wrong. Then there are those who never complain whose lives seem extremely troubled. Perhaps complaining is actually only loosely related to justifiable difficulties; perhaps it doesn't have much to do with them at all. My observations are that the need to complain is determined by factors other than what is or is not occurring in the life of the complainer.

Two patients of mine provide good illustrations of this concept:

Martha, a 68-year-old, suffered with cancer for several years before her death. Her final years were characterized by considerable pain and periodic hospitalizations, and her life was consumed with the oversight and management of this horrible disease. Despite this, I never once heard Martha complain. Instead, she expressed gratitude for the many healthy years she enjoyed prior to her illness, celebrated the successes and joys of family and friends, and expressed compassion for the many she believed suffered a fate much worse than her own. Her way of handling herself under such difficult circumstances—right up to the end of her life—was widely admired by everyone who knew her.

Tamara was a different story altogether. Her complaining was panoramic and continuous and perhaps a reason why she had fewer friends than she would have liked—ironically, one of her major complaints. For her, complaining seemed a way of life and not just a means of communicating with the outside world. Minor frustrations and disappointments were complained about, and one was led to wonder how Tamara would cope if something like serious illness or job loss were to occur in her life—like it has for so many others.

It appears that complaining, for many, is a communication made in the hope that someone will recognize their suffering. Once recognition is achieved, something inside the complainer feels satisfied. For some, this ends their complaining. For others, their complaining is ongoing and unresponsive to any intervention on the part of others. I suppose these are the people for whom complaining is a way of life as it represents an attempt at achieving satisfaction even though it is quite often unsuccessful.

There certainly are differences between complaining and sharing or discussing matters with others. Discussing a situation tends to involve an attempt to understand the origin of a problem and think of a remedy. We assume responsibility for what bothers us, rather than blaming others or outside factors. The discussion may provide a new perspective on a situation, thereby helping us to deal with it more effectively.

Perhaps the words attributed to 8th-century Buddhist scholar and monk Shantideva would serve as good counsel: “If something can be changed, work to change it. If it cannot, why worry, be upset, and complain?”

More from Richard B. Joelson DSW, LCSW
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